Black like me?

Civil rights activist's ethnicity questioned

Rachel Dolezal chairs the May 5 meeting of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission. This still image is from a video posted on the City of Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman’s government Facebook page. To view the video, visit https://vimeo.com/127088422

COEUR d'ALENE - She's risen from North Idaho civil rights champion to positions of power in Spokane as a self-described black woman.

But what if Rachel Dolezal is really white?

Dolezal, chair of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission and president of the city's chapter of the NAACP, has made claims in the media and elsewhere about her ethnicity, race and background that are contradicted by her biological parents.

"It is very disturbing that she has become so dishonest," said Dolezal's mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, in a phone interview from Northwest Montana, where Dolezal grew up.

Rachel Dolezal, 37, was highly visible in the media in North Idaho when she lived in Coeur d'Alene and was employed from 2008 to 2010 as education director of the Human Rights Education Institute.

Dolezal's application for appointment to Spokane's new police ombudsman commission was signed by Dolezal and submitted in May 2014. The application was acquired by The Press through a public record request.

According to Spokane City spokesman Brian Coddington, Dolezal was appointed to the Police Oversight Committee by the mayor himself. In April 2014, the city held two public workshops to consider how the oversight committee should be formed, Coddington said.

"Once that was done, job descriptions were written and we began recruiting applicants," he said.

Coddington said the selection committee was formed in May that year and a decision was made based on community input to do very limited background checks on the applicants.

"The community wanted diversity and limited background checks," Coddington said, explaining that the committee didn't want to deter applicants who may have had a misstep or two in their past. "The low level background checks were intentional."

On the application for the oversight committee is a section to declare ethnicity. On Dolezal's application, she indicated that she was white, African-American, Native American and two or more races.

While ethnicity was not a criterion for selection, Coddington said it was certainly taken into account. The section of the 2-year-old city ordinance that details the age and residency qualification requirements of commissioners also lists six characteristics given serious consideration in the appointment process. One of them is the individual's ability to "Contribute to the diversity of the commission so that the makeup of the commission reflects the diversity of the people most likely to have contact with members of the police department, including geographic, racial and disability diversity."

"Race wasn't a criteria in the selection process, but certainly diversity was an important part of the process," he said. "Really, the important thing is we wanted to make sure the committee was a reflection of the community."

After the final list of applicants was vetted, the city council appointed one member from each of the city's council districts and the mayor nominated two people to sit on the committee. Dolezal was one of Mayor David Condon's picks.

The Police Oversight Committee has a significant amount of power in Spokane city government, Coddington said, but not any more authority than the city's Parks Board, Library Board or Planning Commission.

"In terms of profile I would say that the oversight committee is on par with the other three," he said.

Coddington said if it is determined that a commissioner fabricated information on his or her application, the City Council has the authority to remove or appoint members to that committee.

"I don't want to speak for the council, but I believe the process would be to gather information and review policies to ensure that everything was done right," he said.

According to James Wilburn, the past president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, being a person of color is not a requirement to become president of that organization.

"It is traditional to have a person of color in that position, but that hasn't always been the case in Spokane," Wilburn said, adding that a woman of European descent was elected president of the organization in the 1990s.

In fact, Wilburn said, at least half - if not a majority - of the Spokane Chapter members are of European descent.

"And that is probably a result of the fact that only 1.9 percent of the population in Spokane is African-American," he said.

Dolezal, a multi-media artist, professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University and former instructor at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, has reportedly made similar ethnicity claims to local media outlets. In recent years, she has portrayed herself physically, and on social media platforms, as a woman of black African-American heritage.

However, her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, who are both white and live in the Troy/Libby area in Montana, told The Press their daughter is not African-American. They backed up the claim with a copy of their daughter's birth certificate and photos. The images show a younger, pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Dolezal who looks much different than the woman with caramel-colored skin now leading the Spokane NAACP and helping review claims of police misconduct in that city.

"Rachel is very good at using her artistic skills to transform herself," Ruthanne said in a recent telephone interview.

In January, Dolezal made headlines by questioning the owner of a Spokane restaurant who had put up a sign referring to the dying words of Eric Garner - a black man who died after being placed in a police chokehold in New York City and said several times, "I can't breathe." Dolezal was quoted by a reporter in the Pacific Northwest Inlander - a Spokane-based weekly publication Dolezal is a frequent contributor to - as saying: "The strangling of Eric Garner's case reminds us of our cultural memory of the strangling through the nooses."

In a February issue of the Easterner, EWU's student-run newspaper, Dolezal reportedly told a reporter that the man who raised her with her mother is her stepfather. In January, a photo of Dolezal and a black man appeared on the Spokane NAACP's Facebook page with the message: "President Dolezal's father announced today that he will be coming to town for January 19th ribbon-cutting ceremony for the NAACP office ... and is expected to speak at the 7 p.m. MLK tribute membership meeting."

But the man in the photo is not her father. The person in the photo is Albert Wilkerson - a black man who lived in North Idaho and volunteered at the Human Rights Education Institute several years ago when Dolezal was in charge of the organization's education programs. A similar picture was posted on Dolezal's personal Facebook page in December, with a comment made from Dolezal's account on the social media platform: "L-R: Me, my oldest son Izaiah, and my Dad."

Dolezal's mother said she has never met Albert Wilkerson and Rachel does not have a stepfather. She said her daughter's father is Larry Dolezal, a former Lincoln County Commissioner in Montana. Ruthanne and Larry just celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary on Monday, she said.

"Anybody who lives in the town of Troy or Libby knows that Larry is her father," Ruthanne said.

Wilkerson, who has since moved away from the area, could not be reached for comment.

Dolezal's birth certificate filed in Lincoln County, Montana in 1977 states that Ruthanne is her mother and Lawrence Albert Dolezal is her father.

Ruthanne also clarified that Izaiah, who Dolezal often says is her son, is actually Dolezal's adopted brother. Between 1993 and 1995, Ruthanne and Larry adopted four black infants: Ezra, Izaiah, Zachariah and Esther.

Rachel Dolezal confirmed in a recent phone interview with The Press that Izaiah is one of her adopted brothers.

"He used to be my brother," she said. "But I have full custody of him now."

There are other questionable details of Rachel's personal history that have appeared repeatedly in media articles about Dolezal.

Multiple interviewers have reported that Dolezal told them she was born in a teepee in Montana. The detail appeared in 2012 in a profile for Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine and several times in interviews and features published by EWU's student newspaper.

"That is totally false," Ruthanne said.

Dolezal's mother said she and Larry lived in a teepee for a while in 1974, when they were first married and three years before Dolezal was born.

"That was the end of living in the teepee," Ruthanne said.

Ruthanne said other claims attributed to her daughter in the media are untrue.

Rachel did not have to use bows and arrows to hunt for her own food, Ruthanne said, and she never lived in South Africa or Colorado. Ruthanne said she, Larry and the younger adopted siblings moved to South Africa in 2002, and lived there until 2006. Larry was stationed there as an employee of the faith-based Creation Ministries International.

"Rachel did not even ever visit us there," Ruthanne said.

Larry Dolezal told The Press that he and Ruthanne and the children moved to Colorado during the time their daughter was finishing her bachelor's degree at Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss.

In stories published by the Easterner in 2014 and earlier this year, Dolezal is reported to have claimed Larry and Ruthanne used violence to punish her and her siblings.

The Easterner reported: "Dolezal has no contact today with her mother or stepfather due to a series of events that still haunt her thoughts today. Dolezal and her siblings were physically abused by her mother and stepfather."

"They would punish us by skin complexion," Dolezal reportedly told the Easterner.

The article went on: "According to Dolezal, the object her mother and stepfather used to punish them was called a baboon whip, used to ward baboons away in South Africa. These whips would leave scars behind, 'They were pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery.'"

That claim offended Dolezal's parents.

"She is fabricating a very false and malicious lie," Ruthanne said during a phone interview on Tuesday.

The Easterner also reported: "In Idaho, Dolezal took on the role as director of the Human Rights Institute, where North Idaho white supremacy groups burglarized every home she and her son lived in. Dolezal said she believes the white supremacy groups felt threatened by female power. According to Dolezal, they hung nooses in her home, vandalized and stole from her property, directed death threats toward her along with threatening to kidnap [her son] Franklin while he was in the second grade. She reported all of these acts to the police and each was admitted into police records as hate crimes, yet the culprits were never caught."

According to Coeur d'Alene Police Sgt. Christie Wood, Dolezal filed a handful of reports during her time in Coeur d'Alene. Wood said Dolezal filed a burglary report Dec. 12, 2008.

"But she never called back with any further info," Wood said. "The limited info we have is a washer was taken out of a storage shed she had behind her house."

On Nov 19, 2009, Dolezal filed a report on behalf of HREI when she said she discovered a swastika sticker on the institute's door. According to police reports, the security cameras that normally would have been trained on the doors apparently malfunctioned and failed to record the timeframe in which the sticker would have been placed there.

On Sept. 3, 2010, Dolezal filed a malicious injury report on an incident that occurred in July of that year.

"Her car was parked at HREI over Art on the Green weekend," Wood said in an email Tuesday. "She found a palm-size dent on the front passenger panel on July 31."

On April 11, 2010, Dolezal filed a report for harassing phone calls. Wood said, according to the report, that Dolezal received a phone call from a female student at North Idaho College that was very vulgar in nature. It was investigated by police and deemed a one-time incident. The prosecuting attorney's office declined to prosecute the case because it did not meet the definition of continued harassment, Wood said.

On Aug. 8, 2011, Dolezal called in a possible prowler. Wood said Dolezal thought someone was trying to get into her back door. No report was filed.

On June 15, 2010, Dolezal filed a harassment report that her brother found a noose hanging in Dolezal's carport behind her rented Coeur d'Alene home.

In August 2010, a detective filed a supplemental report stating that in an effort to find potential witnesses who might have seen someone hang the rope, he telephoned the person Dolezal rented the home from, Randy Bell.

"He told me that he was 90 percent sure it was rope he hung there approximately (one year before the report)," the officer put in his report. "He said he hung a deer up there and he believes the rope is from that time."

Bell told police that he told Dolezal he was the one who had hung the rope in the rafters.

"I asked him when he gave Rachel the information that he was the one who may have hung the rope up there, and he said sometime around the time she filed the report," the police report states. "Randy was sympathetic to Rachel's concerns about the rope but he felt he may be the one who hung the rope up there."

The detective called Dolezal on Aug. 25, 2010 and left her a message to call him about the incident. He did not receive a return call from Dolezal, so he closed the case on Aug. 26.

In a recent telephone interview with The Press, Dolezal denied being told the rope was a deer-hanging apparatus or that the rope was in the rafters for about a year before she filed the report.

"That was not here when I moved in," Dolezal said. "They can claim whatever they want."

During that telephone interview, which Dolezal ended abruptly, she maintained that she is African-American.

"They can DNA test me if they want to," she said. "I would caution you on all of this. This is ridiculous."

Dolezal has recently filed a number of similar reports in Spokane claiming that she is being harassed because of her job at the NAACP, but not because of her race.

"I am the president of the NAACP," she said. "That is why I have been targeted."

Spokane Police declined to comment on Dolezal's most recent claim that someone mailed her a noose. They said the case is under active investigation.

"We don't have anything to add to that," Spokane City Police spokeswoman Teresa Fuller said Tuesday afternoon.

Dolezal has also filed police reports claiming that she has received threatening hate mail. Fuller said the U.S. Postal Service is investigating that case, but it has ruled out all postal employees as potential suspects.

Police Sgt. Wood, who also serves on the Kootenai County Task Force for Human Relations, said that while working in Coeur d'Alene, Dolezal was never the director of the Human Rights Education Institute, as has been reported. She was a staff member in charge of education programs.

"Rachel is passionate about human rights and has remained committed to that social justice cause for many years," Wood said, speaking as a task force member. "Her style in advancing a cause is different from our philosophy. Rachel has not worked on any joint issues with our board for several years."

Dolezal's father, Larry, told The Press by email Wednesday that Dolezal worked hard at her education. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was one of many co-valedictorians from Christian Liberty Academy Satellite School.

"We chose the option with parental oversight and a complete high school transcript processed through CLASS," Larry wrote. "Rachel required minimal supervision, because she was a highly motivated and responsible student."

He noted that his daughter graduated with high honors at the top of her class and received many awards for her work while she was earning her bachelor's degree from Belhaven and then her Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"She worked hard at her education and went above and beyond completing her art assignments," Larry wrote. "There is much positive we could share regarding Rachel's stellar academic and art achievements. We are saddened she has chosen to misrepresent her ethnicity."

Rachel Dolezal, the president of the NAACP in Spokane and former education director of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene, is seen here as a child, when she was growing up in Northwest Montana. A family member provided this photo.

 

The Dolezals pose for a family photo taken during Rachel Dolezal and her now- ex-husband, Kevin Moore’s, wedding reception in Jackson, Miss., in May 2000. Pictured back row, from left: Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel’s mother; Kevin; Rachel; Larry Dolezal, Rachel’s father; and Peggy and Herman Dolezal, Rachel’s grandparents. Front row from left, Ruthanne and Larry’s adopted children: Ezra, Izaiah, Esther and Zachariah.

 

In this photo, posted on Rachel Dolezal’s personal Facebook page in December, Dolezal claims the man on the right is her father, but her biological parents who live in Montana say otherwise.

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